VAR: is technology in football changing the very fabric of the sport?

The rapid advancement of technology in sport, and its impact on rule interpretation and sports governance.

11 September 2019

Ever since the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the summer, barely a week has gone by without the new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) causing controversy and creating talking points amongst professionals, pundits, and supporters alike.

For many years, football’s lawmakers had resisted the notion that technology should be used in football – a very different approach from that taken by the governing bodies in other sports, such as tennis, cricket and rugby union, all of which have readily embraced the benefits that technology can bring to the decision-making of officials in those sports.

Underpinning the introduction of technology is the aspiration that the outcome of sporting events can be just and fair; put another way, that obvious errors by officials, which would otherwise impact upon the result, can be corrected (in a very short period of time).

There is perhaps one significant difference, however, between the way technology has been implemented in these other sports, and the impact VAR is having on elite level football at the moment. Generally speaking, technology has been used for binary (or black and white) situations.

Hawkeye intervenes in tennis in order to remedy matters of fact – was the ball in the court or out of the court? Similarly, in cricket, Hawkeye can provide the umpires with a simulation that confirms if the ball was going to hit the wicket. Rugby union perhaps takes this a little bit further, but the underlying principle is the same – the video referee is able to identify a clear penalty, or a forward pass, as a matter of fact. 

This is where the issue starts to become more controversial. When one looks at football, the introduction of goal line technology followed that same philosophy. It was able to determine whether or not the ball had crossed the goal line, and thus whether or not a goal should be awarded. Again, a matter of fact. VAR brings a new dimension to this. In some ways, the philosophy is the same. VAR can provide a degree of accuracy as regards offside that the human eye can simply never compete with.

More interesting, but still a matter of fact, is in relation to the taking of penalty kicks. A goalkeeper is required to have at least one foot on the goal line when the penalty kick is taken. In years gone by, a degree of flexibility appeared (to the spectator, at least) to be granted to the goalkeeper. VAR, however, makes this a binary issue. The Scotland women’s national team found that out to their cost in one of their World Cup matches when a penalty by the opposing team was ordered to be retaken as a consequence of the goalkeeper’s feet being marginally away from the goal line at the moment the ball was struck.

What is causing the most recent controversy? It comes into sharper focus when one considers a recent match involving Manchester City and Tottenham. The specific talking point in that match concerned the Laws of the Game regarding handball, and it is clear that this sort of issue is not altogether objective, but rather very much subjective in nature. 

A player ought to be penalised for a hand-ball offence if he uses his hand/arm to score a goal directly from his hand or arm, or if the player touches the ball with their hand or arm and then more or less scores directly in the opponent’s goal. That much is clear and, generally speaking, a match referee will be in a position to determine whether a hand-ball offence of that nature has occurred in the penalty area shortly before a goal is scored. 

More difficult is the hand-ball offence that involves the ball touching the player’s hand or arm and then creates a “goal scoring opportunity”. The question is, where does one draw the line at “opportunity”? This brings into sharper focus questions of hindsight.

For example, if a player handles the ball at the half-way line in a manner that the referee either did not see or the referee considered to be innocent or accidental, play would be allowed to continue. For an incident such as this to occur at the half-way line (in a match not involving VAR), it would be improbable for the referee to predict whether or not a goal or goal scoring opportunity would occur. 

VAR is not inhibited by such restrictions. As Manchester City found out, the handball in an earlier phase led to a goal scoring opportunity, which in turn led to a goal. VAR was able to rewind history in a way that match officials before now would have found impossible.

The question supporters want the governing body to resolve is whether that is really the spirit and philosophy of technology in sport – subjective decisions that rewind and re-write decision making in sport? The Manchester City manager explained after the match that they simply had to accept the VAR decision. That much is true, as he had no opportunity to dispute it. VAR in football is very much in its infancy, but might there yet be developments that permit a coach to challenge a decision in a similar way to cricket or tennis?

Football has historically declared that the love of the game derives from the fact that the player at the local park is subjected to the same Laws of the Game as a player participating in a match at Easter Road or Emirates Stadium.

As the debate rages on, and as more countries in Europe adopt, or are in the process of adopting, VAR, it will be incumbent upon the lawmakers and regulatory bodies to find a use of technology that sits well with professionals, pundits, and supporters alike.